Thrift in Writing Well

vine pruning

A vinedresser knows that to produce more grapes, he needs to do plenty of pruning.  A good writer knows that to produce better writing, thrift is required.  Less is more.

In his book Writing Well, Mark Tredinnick tells the story of a student who shared his goal for the class –

 I’d like to be more thrifty as a writer. My uncle once told me that “thrifty” comes from the verb “to thrive.” 

Tredinnick goes on –

The writing thrives if you use a little to say a lot; if you bring to each sentence just the words it needs to say the thing you have in mind — in just the way you need to say it.

Thrift is often an overlooked and undervalued discipline in an age where we are taught to share everything that is on our minds.  Now that we have the technological capacity to record nearly all our thoughts and emotions, we have come to see it as good and right (certainly therapeutic) to do so.  There is a place for spontaneity in the creative process, but good writing is a dance where we lead the reader each step of the way, not take off on a thousand separate paths while the reader sits back and tries vainly to make sense of it.

To briefly illustrate my point, here (below) is a song from a master of thrifty writing – folk singer John Prine.


He Was In Heaven Before He Died

©John Prine

There’s a rainbow of babies
Draped over the graveyard
Where all the dead sailors
Wait for their brides
And the cold bitter snow
Has strangled each grassblade
Where the salt from their tears
Washed out with the tide

And I smiled on the Wabash
The last time I passed it
Yes I gave her a wink
From the passenger side
And my foot fell asleep
As I swallowed my candy
Knowing he was in heaven
Before he died

Now the harbor’s on fire
With the dreams and desires
Of a thousand young poets
Who failed ’cause they tried
For a rhyme without reason
Floats down to the bottom
Where the scavengers eat ’em
And wash in with the tide

Repeat Chorus:

The sun can play tricks
With your eyes on the highway
The moon can lay sideways
Till the ocean stands still
But a person can’t tell
His best friend he loves him
Till time has stopped breathing
You’re alone on the hill

Repeat Chorus:

(lyrics found at Prine Shrine)

                      *  *  *

Try this:  Take one of your blog posts (either already published or in draft form) and do some “pruning”.  See if it might bear more fruit.

(image “Vine pruning lessons” from State Library of South Australia, some rights reserved)

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